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The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power

Written by Kevin PerainoAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kevin Peraino


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: October 29, 2013
Pages: 432 | ISBN: 978-0-307-88722-1
Published by : Crown Crown/Archetype
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A captivating look at how Abraham Lincoln evolved into one of our seminal foreign-policy presidents—and helped point the way to America’s rise to world power.
This is the story of one of the most breathtaking feats in the annals of American foreign policy—performed by one of the most unlikely figures. Abraham Lincoln is not often remembered as a great foreign-policy president. He had never traveled overseas and spoke no foreign languages. And yet, during the Civil War, Lincoln and his team skillfully managed to stare down the Continent’s great powers—deftly avoiding European intervention on the side of the Confederacy. In the process, the United States emerged as a world power in its own right.  
Engaging, insightful, and highly original, Lincoln in the World is a tale set at the intersection of personal character and national power. The narrative focuses tightly on five distinct, intensely human conflicts that helped define Lincoln’s approach to foreign affairs—from his debate, as a young congressman, with his law partner over the conduct of the Mexican War, to his deadlock with Napoleon III over the French occupation of Mexico. Bursting with colorful characters like Lincoln’s bowie-knife-wielding minister to Russia, Cassius Marcellus Clay; the cunning French empress, Eugénie; and the hapless Mexican monarch Maximilian—Lincoln in the World draws a finely wrought portrait of a president and his team at the dawn of American power.
In the Age of Lincoln, we see shadows of our own world. The international arena in the 1860s could be a merciless moral vacuum. Lincoln’s times demanded the cold, realistic pursuit of national interest, and, in important ways, resembled our own increasingly multipolar world. And yet, like ours, Lincoln’s era was also an information age, a period of rapid globalization. Steamships, telegraph wires, and proliferating new media were transforming the world. Global influence required the use of “soft power” as well as hard.
Anchored by meticulous research into overlooked archives, Lincoln in the World reveals the sixteenth president to be one of America’s indispensable diplomats—and a key architect of America’s emergence as a global superpower. Much has been written about how Lincoln saved the Union, but Lincoln in the World highlights the lesser-known—yet equally vital—role he played on the world stage during those tumultuous years of war and division.


Chapter One

Lincoln vs. Herndon

Abraham lincoln was nervous. the floor of the u.s. house of representatives in the 1840s was not a particularly pleasant place to give a speech—especially the first major effort of a freshman congressman’s career. The chamber was designed to resemble the Roman Pantheon, framed by marble pillars and crimson drapes, but it reminded more than one visitor of an unruly schoolhouse. Members kicked their heels up on the mahogany desks, hollered at the speaker, rustled newspapers, puffed on cigars, and spat plugs of tobacco on the filthy carpet. The noise, amplified by a cavernous, sixty-foot ceiling, reminded one visitor of “a hundred swarms of bees.” One of Lincoln’s fellow Illinoisans complained that he “would prefer speaking in a pig pen with 500 hogs squealing” or talking “to a mob when a fight is going on” than trying to keep the attention of his colleagues. It was, he recalled, “the most stupid place generally I was ever in.” 

Lincoln was accustomed to speaking before juries, but he could never completely suppress the butterflies. Thirty-eight years old, a “rail in broadcloth,” the gentleman from Illinois presented an arresting figure. His suits, more often than not, were rumpled, and his pants tended to hover above his ankles. His law partner at the time, William Herndon, described Lincoln as a “sinewy, grisly” character, with an unruly mop of hair that “lay floating where the fingers or the winds left it, piled up at random.” Regardless of his appearance, Lincoln knew on this day that he was likely to get the House’s attention. He had decided to pick a fight over the origins of the Mexican War, the two-year-old conflict that promised—or threatened—to remake the American West.

Lincoln had been laying the groundwork for his speech for weeks. He had voted for fellow representative George Ashmun’s resolution condemning the 1846 American invasion of Mexico as unnecessary and unconstitutional. President James K. Polk claimed that the conflict was a war of self-defense, retaliation for attacks by Mexican guer­rillas. Lincoln wasn’t buying. He demanded to know “the particular spot of soil” where American blood had been shed, insisting that U.S. troops had provoked the war by aggressively pushing into contested land

In the red-and-gold House chamber, with its plaster statue of Liberty and its large portraits of Washington and Lafayette, Lincoln went on the attack. He insisted in his high-pitched tenor that his “first impulse” regarding Mexico had been to “remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended.” Yet he finally determined that “I can not be silent, if I would.” Lincoln compared Polk to a shifty lawyer trying to defend a hopeless case. The president “is deeply conscious of being in the wrong,” Lincoln told the chamber. He “feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.” Young Hickory, as Polk was known, had been deluded by dreams of military glory: “that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy.” The freshman congressman’s attacks quickly grew uncomfortably personal. The president, he boomed, was “a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man,” whose “mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature, on a burning surface.” Polk’s justifications were nothing more than “the half-insane mumbling of a fever dream.” 

Lincoln spoke quickly as he made his case against Polk, emphasizing his points with an “abundance of gesture.” As a young legislator, Lincoln could be an uneven speaker, shifting on his feet and ranging up and down the chamber’s aisles. His colleagues back in Illinois had once joked about creating a committee to hold him in place. In later years, Lincoln would eventually learn to control his flailing arms, locking them behind his back and instead gesturing mostly with his head. Only occasionally would he shoot out “that long bony forefinger of his to dot an idea or express a thought.” Today, still green and anxious, Lincoln rushed through the address in about forty-five minutes, fearing that he would be cut off by the speaker if he went on too long.

Lincoln’s broadside attracted little attention—at least at first. Polk, who had once counseled treating political enemies with “silent contempt,” did not bother to respond. He didn’t even mention Lincoln in his otherwise lengthy diary. Lincoln seemed pleased with his effort, spending a substantial amount of his own money sending copies of the address home to constituents. A week after his appearance, he dropped a note in the mail to his old friend and law partner, Billy Herndon. “I have made a speech,” Lincoln wrote, “a copy of which I will send you by next mail.” 

Lincoln’s criticism of Polk had merit. By attempting to fortify the Rio Grande, the president had acted provocatively. Friendly newspapers cheered Lincoln’s volley. “Evidently there is music in that very tall Mr. Lincoln,” the Baltimore Patriot exulted. The congressman, reported the Missouri Republican, “commanded the attention of the House, which none but a strong man can do.” Still, in the nineteenth century, periodicals usually acted as party organs. In hawkish Illinois, Democratic-controlled papers pounced. The Illinois State Register called Lincoln’s resolutions “trash,” and complained that the “littleness of the pettifogging lawyer” had “disgraced” the state. It attacked the congressman with headlines like: “Out damned SPOT!” and dubbed Lincoln the “Benedict Arnold of our district.” The nickname that ultimately stuck, coming back to haunt Lincoln in his later political career, was simply Spotty.

The congressman suffered another stroke of bad luck a little over a month later: the war ended. Polk’s envoy had secured excellent terms from the defeated Mexicans. In exchange for $15 million and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the United States would take control of a vast tranche of territory that comprises modern-day Texas, New Mexico, California, and other western states. Americans, in general, were elated. But Lincoln’s hobbyhorse had been shot out from under him.

Far more troubling were the letters that began pouring in from an unlikely critic: Billy Herndon. Lincoln’s law partner believed that Polk had the right to deter enemy troops by sending U.S. forces “into the very heart of Mexico” if necessary. Moreover, in expansionist Illinois, Lincoln was destroying his career by challenging Polk on the war, Herndon believed. Lincoln’s partner would later boast about his “mud instinct”—his ability to read the political mood. Herndon contended that no politician could survive a vote in which he appeared to oppose his own country in wartime. Lincoln’s law partner wrote to his friend again and again to press his case.

Lincoln quickly responded to Herndon, hoping to set his partner straight. The congressman regretted the disagreement, he told the younger man—“not because of any fear we shall remain disagreed, after you shall have read this letter, but because, if you misunderstand, I fear other good friends will also.” Lincoln made a distinction between challenging the war’s origins, by voting for the Ashmun amendment, and agreeing to send supplies to the troops. “I will stake my life, that if you had been in my place, you would have voted just as I did,” he insisted. “Would you have voted what you felt you knew to be a lie? I know you would not.” Skipping the vote was not an option. “No man can be silent if he would,” the congressman wrote. “You are compelled to speak; and your only alternative is to tell the truth or tell a lie. I can not doubt which you would do.” Lincoln could not have been happy with his partner’s challenge, but he did his best to maintain the relationship. Although he addressed his Mexican War letters using the formal “William,” rather than the more familiar “Billy,” Lincoln closed them with his usual affectionate signoff.

The Mexican War did no lasting damage to Lincoln’s relationship with his law partner. It did, however, mark a turning point in Lincoln’s maturity as a foreign-policy thinker—and, in a larger sense, in Americans’ conception of their country’s place in the world. The early nineteenth century was a romantic era. It was also a period of intense religious revival. Traveling evangelists helped to infuse the country with a crusading spirit. For decades Americans had justified westward expansion with appeals to natural right. In the 1840s, however, a new dynamic emerged. Hawks, especially in the northeastern and northwestern states, began advocating the moral reform of distant societies. The Mexican War was “the best kind of conquest,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1847. “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!” 
Kevin Peraino|Author Q&A

About Kevin Peraino

Kevin Peraino - Lincoln in the World

Photo © Gasper Tringale

KEVIN PERAINO is a veteran foreign correspondent who has reported from throughout the world. He spent a decade at Newsweek, most recently as a senior writer and bureau chief in the Middle East. He was a finalist for the Livingston Award for his foreign-affairs reporting, and was part of the team that won a National Magazine Award for its coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign. A graduate of Northwestern University and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, he lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Follow him on Twitter @KevinPeraino.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Kevin Peraino, author of LINCOLN IN THE WORLD:
The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power

Q) As a veteran foreign correspondent who has reported from throughout the world
(Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt) you’ve long been fascinated by foreign affairs, witnessing it at the street level. How did this experience prime you to pen your book, Lincoln in the World?

A) In the news business it’s easy to find yourself fixated on the diplomatic donnybrook of the week. With this project I wanted to step back a little and take a macro approach—to try to make sense of what I had seen by looking at global affairs through the lens of some long-standing traditions of American foreign policy. The diplomacy of the Civil War caught my attention right away. It was clearly an overlooked story that was bursting with colorful personalities and important lessons for our own times.

Q) You went to college in Illinois (Northwestern University), the Land of Lincoln. Did that in some way encourage the writing of Lincoln in the World? Were you inspired by any other books, articles, or movies about Lincoln?

A) Absolutely. In the Chicago area, the streets are named after Sherman and Sheridan, the parks after Grant and Lincoln. I bought my first tattered copy of Carl Sandburg’s classic biography at a used bookshop on the North Shore while I was working as a cub reporter in Newsweek’s Chicago bureau just out of school. 

Q) What sets Lincoln in the World apart from other books on the Great Emancipator?

A) There are thousands of books about Lincoln—but virtually none about his foreign policy. There hasn’t been a holistic, human account of Lincoln’s role in foreign affairs in nearly seventy years. Part of the problem is that Lincoln had a powerful and competent secretary of state in William Henry Seward. So books that put Lincoln at the center of his own foreign policy tend to end up as hagiographies. To solve that problem, I included only those episodes in which Lincoln was deeply involved—tightly focusing the narrative around five distinct conflicts that helped define the character of a Lincolnian foreign policy.

Q) When did you discover that this piece of Lincoln history was largely untold?

A) Almost right away. A great author once told me that the best books to write are the ones you want to read. I found myself strongly drawn to this overlooked aspect of Lincoln’s life, and I wanted to learn more. But there was very little out there.

Q) Jon Meacham, James McPherson, Amanda Foreman, and Michael Burlingame are among the handful of heavy hitters who have praised Lincoln in the World, calling it “engaging,” “penetrating,” “riveting,” and “elegantly written.” With such a welcome early reception, did you have any concerns adding to the existing Lincoln literature?

A) Yes! My friends teased me about it: What could I possibly add to the record about one of the world’s most written-about figures? But what astonished me as I was researching this was just how much fascinating new material about Lincoln has recently come to light. Scholars like Burlingame have dug deeply into the archival material in recent years—combing through not just the traditional letters and diaries, but also the archived papers of past historians and biographers, looking for information that has ended up on the cutting room floor. I took a similar approach—traveling from Springfield to London to Lexington in search of fresh material.

Q) Lincoln isn’t generally remembered as a great foreign-policy president, but in your book you argue that he was one of America’s indispensable diplomats—and a key architect of America’s emergence as a global superpower. Tell us about that.

A) It’s all in the way you look at it. James Randall, the great Lincoln biographer, once observed that compared to Teddy Roosevelt, or Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln’s involvement in international relations was minimal. That’s true enough—and makes perfect sense, since there was a devastating war raging on American soil. But Randall also rightly saw that the things Lincoln did do on the global stage were hugely important. So my approach was to home in on those critical foreign-policy decisions and really explore them in detail. As a result, we see Lincoln in a different light. 

Q) Did you come across any interesting facts or details about Lincoln in your research that you think readers would be surprised to learn?

A) I was struck by Mary Lincoln’s attempts to influence diplomatic appointments. She was far more cosmopolitan than her husband. As a girl she had attended a school where students spoke French, run by Parisian aristocrats. Her parents were friends with some of the country’s great diplomats, and her childhood home was filled with Belgian rugs and French mahogany furniture. She certainly felt—with some justification—that she was more knowledgeable about the world than her husband. And she let him know it. On several occasions she urged him to appoint her candidates as foreign envoys, and she repeatedly tangled with Lincoln’s chief diplomat, Seward.

Q) There are many fascinating individuals who were involved in Lincoln’s foreign policy legacy and who you highlight in Lincoln in the World. Who did you find most interesting to research?

A) The French emperor, Napoleon III, was a particularly intriguing character. He was a poor strategist and a serial womanizer—deeply insecure and usually inscrutable. Otto von Bismarck described him as “a great unfathomed capacity.” Even his youthful girlfriends found him difficult to read. One marriage prospect later said that Napoleon was so opaque that she worried she would have “broken his head open just to see what was in it.” Lincoln, too, found himself wondering what Napoleon was thinking when the French emperor invaded Mexico during the height of the Civil War. 

Q) What do you think are some of the important takeaways of Lincoln’s foreign policy for the present day? How do you think the foreign policy of President Obama is similar or different to President Lincoln’s?

A) In one sense, there’s no comparison—the U.S. was essentially an emerging market in the Civil War era; now it’s the most powerful nation on the planet. But there are some intriguing similarities in the times. The mid-nineteenth century was an information age. The newspaper culture of the Civil War era is not so different from our own world of burgeoning new media. Yet it was also a period of brutal realism, an age that resembles in significant ways our own increasingly multipolar world.

Q) The Lincoln who you portray in your book is in many ways a different man than we think we know. Which aspect of his character most surprised you?

A) I was genuinely surprised by the scope of his worldview. We learn in grade school that European politics played some role in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But Lincoln was constantly thinking about America’s place in the world. His first political handbill, nearly thirty years before the outbreak of the Civil War, argued that local schools should teach students more about foreign cultures. His economic vision as a Whig coming up in Illinois politics was all about building roads and canals—important links to the outside world. By the time he took office, he was making the case that the “central idea” of the looming war was to prove “that popular government is not an absurdity.” We’ve all heard Lincoln’s famous lines about America as the world’s “last, best hope.” But there’s a lot more to the story.



One of the Daily Beast's "Best Books on President Lincoln"

"Revealing and fresh ... There is much here that will interest even those steeped in the vast Lincoln literature." Washington Post

"A form of intellectual isolationism frequently mars the work of American historians, who often study U.S. politicians without appreciating how those figures’ perceptions of events overseas influenced their ideas about their country’s role in global affairs. Lincoln in the World avoids this pitfall.... [I]t is an important step toward a richer and more useful understanding of the American past." –Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

"[Peraino's] technique works brilliantly.... A well-written, finely researched and provocative study of what, to many, is a lesser-known aspect of the Civil War period and Lincoln's presidency." Charleston Post and Courier

"At once informative and interesting, showcasing the formation of specific slices of Lincoln’s foreign policy and portraying a very human Lincoln—as opposed to the demigod he has become in the popular imagination.... A perceptive work that is both entertaining and accessible to a general readership." Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Riveting and revealing... A recommended addition to Lincoln collections." Library Journal

"With original research, Peraino achieves a remarkable triple play for readers of Lincoln, the Civil War, and diplomatic history." Booklist

"Kevin Peraino is a major new historical talent, combining the sensibility of a gifted writer and storyteller with a keen analytic intelligence. You may think you know all you need to know about Abraham Lincoln, but in this lucid and compelling new book, you will discover that you've only heard half the story. Here is the Lincoln who looked abroad, struggling with, and ultimately shaping, America's role in the world." –Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

"Lincoln came into the presidency professing that, as a country lawyer, he knew nothing about foreign affairs. He had never been abroad. Yet as Kevin Peraino shows in this penetrating account, Lincoln steered American policy through the shoals of potential foreign intervention in the Civil War and brought the U.S. triumphantly through this crisis as the exemplar of democratic freedoms in a changing world."–James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"Peraino's narrative beautifully illustrates the political battles that shaped Lincoln's approach to diplomacy." Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire

"With the virtues of both a scholar (his research is prodigious) and a journalist (he writes with verve and flair), Kevin Peraino shines a bright light on a neglected aspect of Lincoln’s remarkable leadership." –Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

"A French army in Mexico, Spanish ships in the Caribbean, Britain threatening warPresident Lincoln had to contend with more than the forces of the Confederacy. With keen insight and a lively, deft touch, Kevin Peraino puts Lincoln on the world stage, struggling with the tension between realism and idealism that would shape American foreign policy down to this day. A riveting and original work."  –Evan Thomas, author of Ike's Bluff

"Lincoln in the World is an engaging and important book. An accomplished storyteller, Kevin Peraino makes a persuasive case for Abraham Lincoln as one of this nation's most effective foreign policy presidents and a key figure in its emergence as a great power." –George C. Herring, author of From Colony to Superpower

"Elegantly written, thoroughly analyzed, well researched, and up to date on scholarship, this is a masterfully crafted analysis of a born diplomat of the first order... Award-winning quality…" –Howard Jones, author of Blue and Gray Diplomacy

"A fascinating bookend to the Lincoln story.... The author shares the heartening and uplifting details of Lincoln's influence in the world. In so doing, he inspires us in our America that remains a 'house divided.'" –Frank J. Williams, founding chair of The Lincoln Forum

From the Hardcover edition.

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